When he was undergoing treatment for the cancer that would eventually take his left leg, Noah Elliott happened to catch a glimpse of his future on the television screen.
And after watching the snowboarders race in the 2014 Paralympics, and later deciding with his doctors to amputate his leg, the skateboarder from Missouri knew what his next move would be. He saved money from his job as a dishwasher, raised money online, and moved to Utah to learn to ride on the snow.
With help from the National Ability Center in Park City and the trainers at Team Utah, Elliott’s decision and commitment paid off this month in South Korea, where he won two medals, gold and bronze, at the Pyeongchang Paralympics. And thanks to performances like Elliott’s, Team USA dominated the medal count four years after a lackluster showing in Sochi.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled,” said Lane Clegg, a Team Utah director and snowboard-cross coach. “We had high expectations and high hopes going in, and what we did is beyond what I had hoped for.”
The U.S. Olympic team left Pyeongchang last month disappointed with its medal count. America’s Paralympic athletes had no such problems. U.S. Paralympians racked up 36 medals in Pyeongchang, 12 more than the second-place Russians — and this after finishing eighth in the medal count four years ago in Sochi.
Experts cite improved training and equipment as key factors in the Americans’ success. Utah can take some credit for the turnaround in 2018, too, with NAC athletes and alumni winning seven medals in Pyeongchang.
NATIONAL ABILITY CENTER WINNERS
Brenna Huckaby • Snowboard-cross gold, banked slalom gold.
Noah Elliott • Snowboard-cross bronze, banked slalom gold.
Keith Gabel • Snowboard-cross silver.
Tyler Walker • Giant slalom (sitting) silver, slalom (sitting) silver.
“I couldn’t be more proud of where this has come from and the direction we’re heading,” said Keith Gabel, an Ogden snowboarder and NAC alumnus who won two silvers in the banked-slalom events. “When we first started doing this, there were just a few of us trying to make it happen. The goal was to create something that will be around long after we’re gone, and I think we’re well on our way.”
The NAC and Team Utah work together to produce some of the world’s top Paralympic athletes.
“We bring in the athletes and we get their prosthesis dialed in, we get their stance dialed in, and make it work for them,” said Jessica Roising, the NAC’s competitive team manager. “We help them learn to use those adaptations so they’re just focused on training and racing.”
From there the NAC, one of 12 of the most elite Paralympic sports clubs in the country, leans on Team Utah’s coaches to get athletes ready.
The results were undeniably positive in Pyeongchang. First-time Paralympian Brenna Huckaby, a Millcreek resident, won gold in both the banked slalom and snowboard-cross events. NAC athlete Tyler Walker won a pair of silver medals in the slalom.
Elliott, meanwhile, was a success story unto himself, winning two medals after only two years of training as a snowboarder.
“He saw the Paralympics and said, ‘I want to do that,’” Roising said. “And we did everything we could to make that happen.”
“He’s obviously really driven and really motivated,” Clegg added. “He’s having a great time out there, which is huge. That’s something that, I think, after he lost his leg he wasn’t sure he was ever going to get back to having fun. This has provided that outlet for him.”